Today I did something I haven’t done in awhile. I submitted my writing for publication.
It’s another thing that I’ve put on hold for so long because of my writing name worries. I was in utter paralysis about my work because of it. I still submitted worked occasionally (like, once or twice a year), some under Emilia Jordan, some under my real name, and worried how it would complicate things if anything ever got accepted under either name.
But I’m ready to move forward again. Over the last couple of months, I did deep revisions on two of my personal essays, “Reasonable Doubt” and “Distant Light.” These are the two essays that felt the closest to publishable, and though I’d put off revising them for awhile, sometimes years, because it felt so daunting, I finally undertook revising both of them (thanks quarantine?) and got both to a place where I felt they were ready to be sent out.
“Distant Light” went out to the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest, which of course I realize is a huge long shot, and yet I revised this essay with this contest’s word count in mind (and also it felt like an appropriate target word count). “Reasonable Doubt” went to River Teeth. These are both publications I have read and loved, and I had great experiences at AWP last year interacting with one of the River Teeth editors.
(And as a PSA, a lot of literary journals are struggling right now, so if you can, donate, subscribe, buy some books.)
Both are essays I’ve been writing, more off than on, for several years, and they’re the essays I’m the most proud of, but I knew both needed work. And so, daunting as it was, I did the work. It wasn’t easy. I’d put both away for so long. I’d lost hope with both. Both had some writer’s heartbreak to them.
I’d submitted “Reasonable Doubt” to Tin House (when they still had the magazine going). The essay is long and Tin House was accepting submissions as long as 10k words and when I submitted, in March 2017, their website said they were reading submissions on the theme True Crime, which you might imagine that an essay with a title such as “Reasonable Doubt” might touch on (especially if you knew me as a true crime podcast enthusiast).
It felt like the perfect fit because my essay touched on true crime pop culture and literal true crime (though not any sensational cases or anything, more like everyday life true crimes). Not only did my essay not get picked, but I found out that the website had been outdated, that the True Crime theme had closed six months or a year before. Obviously not the end of the world or anything, but it’s what happens when you start thinking a piece of your writing has one true perfect fit home.
“Distant Light” was an essay I started writing specifically for a call for submissions from Creative Nonfiction on the topic of “Mistakes.” I worked on it up until the day submissions closed and well into that evening. A friend was sitting on my couch waiting for me to be done so he could drive me to Salem for an NFB State Convention while I played the “I just need to tweak one last word choice” game for what probably felt like hours. This was in the fall of 2013. Six or so months later, I got notified that my piece was in the top 10% being considered for publication. And then it wasn’t chosen.
It’s something every writer faces, and something I feel a lot, that my writing is considered good-ish, good-esque, but ultimately not good enough. I feel like I’m always on that edge of almost.
It made me think back to the time I entered a bunch of pieces in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association contest and didn’t win anything but got really positive feedback. During the annual conference that year, which you can read about in one of my earliest blog posts, several people who’d read for the contest came up to me and told me how much they’d loved my entries. It felt great, but also like I was once again, almost chosen.
Similarly, last summer I submitted some screenplays to the Kay Snow Writing Contest put on by Willamette Writers. They had us submit through something called CoverFly (which I need to learn more about and may have kinda messed up, especially as I submitted last minute) and on there you can see what percent you’ve been rated at, and I could see that they’d given one of my screenplays a 94% rating (the other one was at 81%). I honestly thought that meant I would place in the contest, that seemed like a really high score, but ultimately I didn’t place at all for screenwriting. I was so bummed, even though I knew my screenplay still needed some work. I also knew if I went to the conference, which I signed up for but ultimately didn’t attend for a couple of reasons, it would be the same thing as PNWA years ago..
And there are so many other examples. I had a bunch of agents and editors who seemed genuinely interested in my work but they all ultimately passed on my book proposal. Or the time, back in high school, when my school’s English office nominated me (they could only nominate one student in the junior class) for the NJ Governor’s School of the Arts (looks like they don’t have an Arts one anymore) in Creative Writing, but then I ultimately didn’t get into the program. I still remember the day that letter came, how my mom was itching to open it before I got home, and the disappointment when it was a rejection letter. And on and on. Not to mention the countless times I just got rejected from things and didn’t even get up to that almost line.
Of course, I realize these are not huge, life shattering problems. Of course, I realize that every writer goes through this. But knowing that doesn’t make it that much easier inside myself, to not go into that not good enough feeling, especially because my natural tendency is to go there.
I know that I could be a lot more proactive with submitting my work and probably if I was, something would catch on at some point, even if it was in a really small way. I know I’d have much more of a chance of getting anywhere if I took more chances in submitting my work. And still, I find it hard to do and for a long time the name paralysis was a convenient reason not to try.
I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, and probably I have, but sometime in 2014 I had this dream. In it, Taylor Swift was my close friend. We were in my childhood home and she was sleeping over on a sleeping bag on my bedroom floor the way my sister used to do on Christmas Eve every year. At some point as we were just hanging out being besties, Taylor looked at me dead on and was like, “What’s holding you back in your writing?” or something to that effect, very direct. My answer, without hesitation or a second thought was, “Marketing.”
By that I meant this kind of stuff, submitting my writing, pursuing publication. I know I’m not good at it. I don’t like it. I suck at all the things you’re supposed to do as a writer to promote your work, especially all the platform and content and branding stuff. And the truth is, I don’t actually give many fucks about those things and doing them makes me feel fakey and uncomfortable and a little gross. Like a corporation instead of a person. Like most writers, I got into this for the art not the self-promotion and definitely not the social media self-promotion of it. So there is a balance I’m still trying to find that feels authentic.
But submitting my work to publications I really like, although I still may be reluctant because of all the likely rejections that will follow, and all the disappointment and feeling not good enough and all of it, at least that feels different to me, feels authentic, feels like me just being a writer. I’m trying to push myself to do that more.
So, today, I submitted two essays I’m really proud of to two publications I like and admire. And I can be proud of that, even if nothing comes of it, which is by statistics and probability the most likely outcome. I also did it thoughtfully, whereas in the past I have sometimes taken a more shotgun approach to submitting my work and done it with pieces I knew weren’t ready. Hopefully this’ll be a positive feedback loop, where starting to send my work out gives me momentum to send out more.
And for anyone who’s interested, the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest has been extended for another week, so get your work in there!
This post ended up going some unexpected places. Now I’m off to go watch last night’s finale episode of How to Get Away with Murder.